Link to jump to start of content The Seattle Times Company Jobs Autos Homes Rentals NWsource Classifieds
The Seattle Times Politics
Traffic | Weather | Your account Movies | Restaurants | Today's events

Friday, February 3, 2006 - Page updated at 01:38 AM


UW leery of tighter security around research

Seattle Times business reporter

At the University of Washington's Physics Department, a German won the Nobel Prize, the leading nanotechnology researcher is British and about half of the post-doctoral students come from other countries.

Nationality was not considered an impediment to research before, but it might be under new regulations proposed by the U.S. Commerce Department.

Commerce is set to approve tighter security controls this month on scientific research performed by foreign nationals. The proposed regulations, aimed at stopping the transfer of sensitive technology to certain countries, could prevent many non-U.S. citizens from using equipment or software at universities such as UW without a special license.

The Bush administration says the rules are necessary to strengthen national security. Current export controls are not enough to stop the flow of technology outside the United States, so tighter rules are needed to curtail the use of such technology within the country, administration officials argue.

Universities warn such restrictions would cripple their ability to perform critical research. At the very least, the rules would create a bureaucratic nightmare and research institutions would bear the burden of administering them, critics say.

Even worse than the burden of compliance, universities argue, is the erosion of a fundamental concept that the exchange of ideas for the advancement of science should remain untethered.

"It goes against the nature of what we're about here: education, open dissemination of results and participation by the best and brightest people from around the world," said Carol Zuiches, assistant vice provost for research at UW. "That's how we have managed to have great scientific advances."

The rules are intended to counter efforts by a number of countries to gain access to cutting-edge technology, which could be used for military purposes, by sending people here to study, said David McCormick, undersecretary of Commerce and head of the Bureau of Industry and Security.

As an example of vulnerabilities, the Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General cited large-capacity fermenters that could be used to make chemical and biological weapons. Two of the nine academic institutions visited by federal inspectors in 2003 to gauge potential problems had state-of-the-art fermentation facilities that could be accessed by any university student, researcher or employee — and in some cases, the private sector.

"We're very sensitive to not killing the goose that laid the golden egg here," McCormick said in an interview last month. "But with that said, we also want to be appropriately responsible if there's a threat."

The UW physics department, for example, uses high-performance computers that cannot be shipped to certain countries because of export restrictions. Yet the Commerce Department says the restrictions have not been effective at preventing the transfer of such technology because foreign students have been able to use the equipment within U.S. universities and other research institutions.

If the rules go into effect as proposed, researchers from restricted countries will not have access to high-performance computers, sophisticated GPS devices, space propulsion systems and other advanced technology on campus unless they receive a special license from the Commerce Department.

Some U.S. export controls apply worldwide, so the restrictions vary depending on the nature of the technology, who is using it and for what purpose. Countries singled out for concern include China, India, Russia, Israel and Iran. To monitor the complex matrix of which pieces of equipment are off limits to which countries at any given time, the UW has considered hiring a consulting firm.

"It will be extremely onerous and very difficult to implement," said David Boulware, chairman of the physics department. "We have no way of knowing which students could work on which computers."

Parts readily available

One leading researcher whose work could be affected is Robert Winglee, chairman of Earth and space sciences at UW. His research on space exploration, funded by NASA, uses equipment restricted from export by the Commerce Department.

While the advanced propulsion systems that Winglee's team puts together are on the controlled list, all of the components used to build them can be bought easily over the Internet, he said.

As an Australian citizen with permanent residence in the United States, he wouldn't face the same restrictions as people of some nationalities. But the program could suffer if the most promising students are not allowed to work on the project.

"Right now we've been impeded in our recruitment of students. If they keep expanding these assaults on basic research, the problem is going to get worse," he said.

"The whole thing is paranoia at its best, and risks an implosion of talent within the U.S. that is crucial to sustaining a growing economy."

UW Chemistry Professor Younan Xia said his research on nanotechnology also could suffer if instruments or technologies land on the restricted list. Half of the post-doctoral students in his department are from China on temporary visas, making them subject to the restrictions.

"If they really put it into effect, it will stop research in the United States," Xia said.

University administrators say they would have to monitor lists of controlled technology items, cordon off research areas and use badges for students and faculty members.

"It seems to me that this is another unfunded mandate where the government expects universities to do the kind of things the FBI does," said Brent Stewart, chairman of the UW Faculty Council on Research.

But according to McCormick of the Commerce Department, universities have been operating on a flawed interpretation of the so-called fundamental research exemption. That rule dates back to a national-security directive by the Reagan administration, which said basic research "to the maximum extent possible" should remain unrestricted.

That was not intended to cover the equipment or technology used for research, only the research itself, McCormick said.

UW generally does not accept funding that limits participation by foreign researchers. Last fall, more than 15 percent of all UW graduate students were international students. In science and engineering, the percentage is much higher. In the U.S., foreign nationals earned 38 percent of science doctorate degrees and 59 percent of the engineering doctorates in 2003.

But recently, more restrictive visa policies imposed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks have discouraged many foreign students from coming to the United States. Enrollments from China, India and South Korea dropped the most, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

Putting restrictions on labs will only make the U.S. a less attractive place for study, critics say, especially when countries such as Australia and Singapore are building world-class programs and competing to lure the most talented students.

The Commerce Department sought public comment on the proposals last year, and could release its revised rules as early as next week.

McCormick confirmed that one suggestion in the original proposal has been dropped following an intense backlash. The proposal called for tracking researchers by their country of birth, on the theory that someone from Iran or another restricted country could eventually get access to sensitive technology by becoming a citizen of Canada or another less-restricted country. The new rules will rely on most recent country of citizenship or permanent residency instead.

Boulware, the physics-department chairman, said cutting off the flow of ideas in the name of national security could easily backfire. In the 1920s and '30s, the world's leading research country was not the United States, but Germany. But during its prewar paranoia, Boulware said, "Germany cut everything off and drove people out, and we picked up the mantle."

One of the scientists who emigrated in that wave: Albert Einstein.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




More shopping